Their contact tracing method would work by using a smartphone’s Bluetooth signals to determine to whom the owner had recently been in proximity for long enough to have established a risk of transferring the virus.
If one of those people later tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, a warning would be sent to the original handset owner. Records of the digital IDs involved would be stored on remote computer servers, but the companies say these could not be used to unmask a specific individual’s true identity.
Furthermore, the contact matching process would take place on the phones rather than centrally. This would make it possible for someone to be told they should go into quarantine, without anyone else being notified.
‘Privacy, transparency and consent are of utmost importance in this effort and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders,’ Apple and Google said in a joint statement.
Reactions to news of the joint development has varied across the globe.
President Trump said his administration needed time to consider the development. ‘It’s very interesting, but a lot of people worry about it in terms of a person’s freedom,’ he said during a White House press conference.
The European Union’s Data Protection Supervisor, a supervisory authority that is usually very cautious on matters of privacy, sounded more positive, saying: ‘the initiative will require further assessment, however, after a quick look it seems to tick the right boxes as regards user choice, data protection by design and pan-European interoperability.’
Some countries – including Singapore, Israel, South Korea and Poland – are already using people’s handsets to issue COVID-19 contagion alerts. In some cases, the identities of the users are disclosed, allowing the authorities to enforce quarantining measures in the event of an alert.
Other health authorities – including the UK, France and Germany – are working on initiatives of their own. And some municipal governments in the US are reportedly about to adopt a third-party app.
The two technology giants aim to bring coherence to these potentially competing systems by allowing existing third-party apps to be retrofitted to include their solution. This would make the apps interoperable, so contact tracing would continue to work as people travelled overseas and came into contact with people using a different tool.
If successful, the scheme could help countries relax lockdowns and border restrictions.